Noah — Genesis 6:9-11:32

"Who is like you
Who could reach you
Who has seen
Who has been
...When you ride a cherub
And glide on the wind
And wander through thunder
And move within storms
Making your way through the waters...
"

The liturgical poet Yannai here imagines the divine as controlling the universe, "from the sky to the heaven’s heaven." Water and its sacred nature are ever-present in the ancient Israelite imagination.

In our reading this week, as the only righteous person left standing in a world bereft of morality, Noah is called upon by God to design and build a wooden ark to escape the deluge that is about to wipe out all of creation from the face of the earth. Noah gathers his family and two members of each animal species to ensure continuity after the flood.

The ark settles on Mount Ararat after 40 days and nights of rainfall, which recedes 150 days later. From the window of the ark, Noah sends forth a raven, followed by a series of doves to find any traces of dry land. Finally Noah exits the ark, in a sense restarting the process of creation by repopulating the earth.

A covenant of the rainbow is made by God, testifying to never again destroy all of humanity. With the flood’s dramatic destruction fresh in mind, it is decreed that, henceforth, murder is a capital offense, and flesh or blood taken from a living animal is prohibited (while properly slaughtered meat is permitted to be eaten).

Noah drinks from the first produce of his vineyard, and becomes intoxicated. Again this righteous exemplar is being tested. This time, we see how effective Noah has been as a righteous exemplar through the behavior of his offspring: Shem and Japheth cover their exposed father while Ham takes advantage of his vulnerability.

With power comes responsibility, and the power of creativity is manifest through the divine song, channeled and composed by liturgical poets like Yannai who sought to intensify the experience of prayer for worshippers, making the contents of familiar weekly readings such as the story of Noah new again.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Biblical scholars contend that the Tower of Babel story was not composed as a cautionary tale about universal human overreaching. Instead, they suggest it is a veiled screed against cities. Professor James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) writes, "The whole point is Babylon (babel in Hebrew)...[and] the thing that most characterised Babylon in the minds of ancient Israelites was its big cities with…their massive populations. ... From [the Israelites] standpoint, who were sparsely settled in the Semitic hinterland, such teeming conglomerations and the complex urban culture they made possible…do not find favor with God." Here, we see the Tower of Babel rising from the desert as a towering metropolis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

American naturalist-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting."

Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature, expresses the belief that everything in our world – even a drop of dew – is a microcosm of the universe. This transcendentalist notion is not foreign to Judaism, especially its more mystical streams. We open ourselves to such transcendence through the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes and, in so doing, daring to see beyond ourselves so that we can develop new relationships to all texts, even sacred texts of nature. It's all a question of how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration.

So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility. Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this locale. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by mystical visions. It features a stylized eye with retinal ganglion cells and filaments of muscle radiating outward. Of his transcendent experiences, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." His peer Walt Whitman described himself as part of a universal weave of "threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff." Rabbi Arthur Cohen writes of being pressed "to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence." Mystics, be they American transcendentalists, Hasids, or academics, are not lunatics; their practice is an enthusiastic response to the world as it is – radically interconnected, with each individual indivisible from everything else. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Behar / Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_Behar-Bechukotai"Sowing the seed,
my hand is one with the earth.
…Hungry and trusting,
my mind is one with the earth.
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth.
"

Wendell Berry’s poem "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer" asks us to consider how the farmer is like the farm. Similarly, the strong language of covenantal prohibition in Leviticus calls on each of us as conscious consumers to draw boundaries around how we use and transform the natural world.

Transformative cycles of seven in biblical literature, in general, and here in Leviticus, in particular, recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in everything, including all other sentient beings. Lines of filiation run most directly through our own awareness of the transformative cycles that embrace us. If a human intelligence of the earth and sensitivity to its needs is one that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace, then perhaps Wendell Berry’s "mad" farmer is not so mad after all!

It is also illuminating to consider our network of intimate relationships and cycles in the context of charity. If you still haven’t had a conversation with a Mormon, try talking about tithing. Observant Mormons unflinchingly give ten percent of their pre-tax dollars to the church. And Jews? Not so consistent – perhaps this is why Jewish institutions continue to struggle as they do all across America. Why is it that a Mormon feels more commanded than a Jew to fulfill a biblical precept?

Earning material well-being is a necessity for the survival of civilization. But how often do we linger in the passionate embrace of the culture that is the fruit of our labors? Wisdom comes with an ability to both earn and enjoy.

In Parashat Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned in addition to dwelling securely in the Holy Land. Conversely, should this covenant be abandoned or abrogated, there is a harsh rebuke, coupled with a warning of exile, persecution, and other manifestations of evil. Here, in Bechukotai, we also encounter a variety of pledges made as divine offerings, as well as the aforementioned spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth (tithing) of firstlings and first fruits.

True wisdom then comes from earning material well-being through civilization as well as the passionate embrace of culture so that we may enjoy in sharing this well-being with others. The understanding that in giving, you receive more than you give could not be more true or urgent today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the arrival of the Jubilee year. Because the Jewish day begins at nightfall, the land is shown scattering rays of Jubilee joy at dusk. "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." (Leviticus 25:10) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Behar -- Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

CoverDesign_Behar_FacebookCycles are enticing, entrancing, and mesmerizing. The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked: "We might possess every technological resource... but if our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be ‘revolutionary’ but not transformative."

The seven transformative cycles that appear in biblical literature -- and feature prominently in this week's parsha -- recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

Now consider for a moment all of the people involved in getting a piece of produce you enjoy into your hand to eat. Where was it grown, and by whom? Farmers, truck drivers, storekeepers, men and women -- imagine how hard they are working to support themselves and their families. Now consider all the ways in which this divine cycling has supported the creation of this fruit by creating fertile soil, clouds and rainwater, energy from sunshine, air. The key is to recognize and be mindful of our interconnectedness with all sentient beings of creation; only then are we called upon to elevate it and make it holy.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in all created sentient beings with those lines of filiation running most directly through our own awareness of these transformative cycles that embrace us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a simple celebration of the Jubilee year, a radical and remarkable concept deserving of more attention. Although the Jubilee (or Yovel, meaning ram's horn, which was traditionally sounded to proclaim the Jubilee's start) hasn't been observed by Jews for ages -- our rabbis ruled that Jubilee can not be observed as long as so many of us are living in diaspora -- there is much wisdom in the practice of radical release and rest. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tazria -- Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

CoverDesign_TazriaThe renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) once observed:

"Abstract painting seeks to be a pure pictorial language, and thus attempts to escape the essential impurity of all languages: the recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

Nowhere is this "essential impurity of all languages" more evident than when reading about the laws of tumah and taharah — a signature of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Debate still abounds as to how exactly to be best translate these key terms — Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? There remains a real need in communal life to continue to have "recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone." Consider the passionately-committed but critical Orthodox, feminist Jew, Rachel Adler, and her translation of tumah and taharah as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn” and how this resonates with Octavio Paz’s poetic categories.

In grappling with the biblical text and its layers of rabbinic interpretation, a turn to poetics invites us once again to embrace halakhah as we continue to weave the rich tapestry of ritual into our daily lives through "forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is intended to be unsettling, and references the base manner in which our ancestors evaluated an individual's purity (or impurity). Many of the laws and rituals in Leviticus strike contemporary readers as anachronistic or even offensive. When reading Tanakh, we Jews are called upon to take our ancestral name seriously (Yisrael, literally "he who contends or strives with G-d"). We must wrestle with these texts not only because a growing number of our brethren embrace a more literal understanding of these decrees, but because this is our book, the "word" that binds Jews of all stripes, streams, and colors in our special tribal/communal relationship (klal Yisrael) -- even those of us who read our ancestors' purity tests as ethnic or ethnoreligious anthropology do not get a pass. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Man As Technicolor Dreamcoat

In the wake of David Bowie's passing, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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On Sunday, January 10, the world lost a great pop culture trendsetter and zelig, David Bowie (1947-2016).

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in South London, wasn’t Jewish, but he was among the first celebrities to dabble with Kabbalah. In the title song of his 1976 album, Station to Station, he sings,

"From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, you drive like a demon from station to station


At the time, even Bowie’s most ardent fans were confused — what are Kether and Malkuth? A clue was provided by the photograph that appeared on the back cover of Station to Station. The picture shows Bowie at his most androgynous drawing the Tree of Life, the diagram representing the relationship between the Ten Sefirot, the Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah. Kether (or Keter, crown) and Malkuth (or Malchut, kingdom) are the top- and bottommost sefirot, respectively. Bowie’s lyrics seem to suggest that he and his companions "overlooking the ocean" had tapped into some esoteric knowledge that allowed them direct access — “one magical movement” — from the realm of the Earthly (Malkuth) to the realm of the supernal (Kether), a channel not accessible to most of humanity, who need to “drive like demon[s] from station to station.” There are, of course, both healthy and unhealthy ways to tap into mystical revelation, and according to many sources, the Station to Station portion of Bowie’s career was informed by his being “bombed out of his mind on cocaine.”

Bowie’s legacy, though, will not be his flirtation with Jewish esoteric traditions, his battle to overcome drug addiction, or his acting and painting forays. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times obituary, "Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called 'plastic soul,' but it was suffused with genuine soul. […] Throughout Mr. Bowie’s metamorphoses, he was always recognizable. His voice was widely imitated but always DB-Transformation-Colourhis own; his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

We leave you with an animated representation of Bowie’s metamorphoses by illustrator Helen Green.

Lead image credit: "David Bowie draws the Tree of Life," photographed by Steve Shapiro, 1975